Evaluating Baseball’s Managers by Chris Jaffe: a review

Best to think of this as a reference book. Chris Jaffe examines the evolution of baseball management by examining the careers of major league baseball’s long-term managers. The book discusses all managers who worked for at least a decade, and a handful who worked shorter terms but made contributions to the way baseball is played or managed. He also provides overviews of manager practice for each of the game’s major eras, and occasionally reminds everyone that managing a baseball team involves more than lineups and in-game player changes. It’s an interesting book, and quite readable, except that it’s grounded in modern baseball analysis.

How you’ll react to this book depends a lot upon what you think about sabermetrics, because the author makes no effort to hide the statistical underpinnings of his study. What’s more, he uses a normalization technique which generates numbers which have no intrinsic meaning, but permit him to compare the tendencies of managers across eras; this is valuable, but many will find it confusing. If you choose to ignore the numbers, the prose will generally carry you along whether you understand the stats or not, but the numbers themselves are quite intrusive.

Organizationally, the book begins with an introduction and three chapters which describe Jaffe’s analytical tools. The tools will be familiar to those who’ve been following baseball analysis over the past decade, but even stats-savvy readers will find the methods he uses to normalize those numbers unfamiliar. Essentially, he converts nearly every comparative statistic to a weighted ranking with values centered at 1.0. You may be able to ignore the methods chapters if you wish, as he explains the meanings adequately in the text, but they’ll certainly drive some folks away.

The rest of the book consists of chapters describing fairly obvious eras in baseball history, dividing it into timespans of 25 or 30 years. He adequately justifies the divisions in the text. Each era places different demands on the field manager and generally speaking there’s a concurrent change in the folks holding down the managerial jobs as each era passes. He begins each section with an overview which discusses how things changed over time, the general characteristics of the era under discussion, and how that impacted managerial practice and strategy. These are followed by manager essays, in alphabetical order, describing every significant person who worked as a baseball field manager mainly in that era.

The manager essays are the heart of the book. Each begins with factual description of the manager’s career, and a series of estimates of his impact on the team (Walter Alston, for instance, is estimated to have added 904 runs–about 90 games–to the Dodgers’ results by his efforts; call it 4 or 5 wins per season). This is followed by a short prose description of his management style. Then there’s an essay which usually covers the impact the manager had on the game and on his team. These manager essays occasionally go off in unexpected directions. One regular feature is that Jaffe likes to make cross-era comparisons; Phil Garner, for instance, reminds Jaffe of Jimmy Dykes, while he describes Bruce Bochy as a far blander version of Wilbert Robinson. These comparisons are always interesting, and often helpful.

I was hoping for more, though. Jaffe repeatedly reminds us that the field manager’s job is primarily a management job, not a game-tactical job, but he doesn’t demonstrate that well. Would he’d given more examples of specific managers performing such tasks as lineup management, giving input on staffing decisions, keeping difficult clubhouses under control, and similar things. While there’s a little bit of that, here and there, it’s not systematic enough to be a proper argument. Since he clearly believes the argument can be made, I really wish he’d done so. A closing survey chapter might have been sufficient.

The book is full of references to other books, and has a bibliography, but there are no footnotes. This may or may not matter to you; some folks would call it a feature.

This is a fine book, and certainly worth reading, as it brings much data to light, is full of interesting details and comparisons, and offers a sound argument. I don’t, however, think it advances the discussion very far past where Bill James’ manager book left it.

I need to briefly discuss the epub edition’s shortcomings. I read this book on my Nook, and in general that experience went well. Although the book is full of tables which were presented as graphics, those are readable (and, thankfully, usually short). At the back of the book, though, are long lists of query results, a bibliography, a glossary, and a table of contents; these, too, are presented as graphics, and are unreadable. This needs to change, folks; folks using ereaders need this material quite as much as other readers.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

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